Chris Crowder: Wolverines’ WNIT streak ends next year
After four seasons at the helm, Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico has made the NCAA Tournament only once — her first season when she took over the head coaching job in the 2012-13 season. However, over the past three seasons, the Wolverines have failed to make the Big Dance, instead settling for the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
Now in Barnes Arico’s fifth season, she’ll finally have a team consisting solely of players she has recruited. And in the 2016-17 season, Barnes Arico will have the right pieces to lead Michigan back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
Last season, the Wolverines had the 14th best recruiting class in the nation, according to ESPN. That class was highlighted by center Hallie Thome and guard Nicole Munger, who were ranked as the 64th and 68th best recruits in the country, respectively. Thome lived up to the hype, racking up the second best field goal percentage in the country while averaging 14.4 points per game. Munger averaged just under five points, but showed flashes of potential. Others from the class, such as guard Boogie Brozoski and Sam Trammel, displayed promise as well in their positions and will likely gain more playing time next seasons with the graduations of guard Madison Ristovski and forward Kelsey Mitchell.
This incoming recruiting class isn’t as highly touted as last season’s, but it is talented in its own right. The class includes four-star forward Kayla Robbins, three-stars KeAsja Pierce and Akienreh Johnson, and guard Kysre Gondrezick, the No. 70 recruit in the nation, according to ESPN’s HoopGurlz. Gondrezick was named Michigan’s Miss Basketball and is the first winner of the award to attend Michigan since Ristovski first came to Ann Arbor. Like Ristovski, Gondrezick could leave a lasting mark on the program after changing the state of Michigan high school women’s basketball records when she was the first player to ever average over 40 points per game during her senior season. She even put up a 72-point performance in the first round of the district playoffs.
If Gondrezick continues her stellar play into college, she could earn playing time alongside the Wolverines’ best player — rising junior guard Katelynn Flaherty. Flaherty is coming off a season in which she garnered All-American Honorable Mention honors after averaging 22.1 points per game — good for 10th in Division I. She shows no signs of slowing down, hungry to get her team closer to a Big Ten title in her third season. While that goal may be tough with Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan State having had the Wolverines’ number, this upcoming season is Flaherty’s best shot yet at finally leading Michigan over the WNIT hump.
While the Wolverines showed last season that they are capable of stepping up to win a game if Flaherty has an off night, they’ll still need Flaherty to lead the way to reach their full potential. Thome will have a year under her belt, more experience and be stronger, helping her dominate the paint on both sides of the ball. Guard Siera Thompson will be a senior, looking to continue to be one of Michigan’s best perimeter shooters while locking down the opposing team’s best scorer. Players like rising junior Jillian Dunston, rising senior Danielle Williams and Munger should continue to pull down rebounds, take charges and step into any role to give the team a boost like they did last season when Michigan needed it most.
Dunston, Williams, Munger, Brozoski and Gondrezick will likely battle for the final two starting spots behind Flaherty, Thompson and Thome. No matter who is chosen, the Wolverines have depth and experience on the bench, which is needed in the scrappy Big Ten conference.
Michigan picked up only one more win this season than it had in the 2014-15 season, finishing 21-14 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten. However, in this past season, Michigan averaged 8.7 more points (78.6) than the season before with a team that featured just two seniors playing consistent minutes. Now that the Wolverines will be older while still bringing in young talent, they’ll be in great position to end their WNIT streak after ending their season in the semifinal round of the tournament the past two seasons.
Fans, players and even Barnes Arico have preached a NCAA Tournament-or-bust mentality. Falling to the WNIT again would be a severe disappointment. A deep run in the NCAA Tournament may still be a few years out, but simply playing in at least one game in the Big Dance is a step forward for the program. It’ll give Michigan more exposure in the women’s basketball spotlight while giving the returning players more confidence for the next year to make it back again.
Next year, the Wolverines won’t likely win the Big Ten title or the WNIT or hoist their first banner in Crisler Center. But Michigan is poised to accomplish something more that it can rest its laurels on, paving the way for the teams that will come after it.